Evaluating University Administrators as Leaders

I recently served on a task force charged with compiling a set of policy and procedural recommendations for evaluating university presidents and vice presidents. It was an enlightening research project.

Suprisingly few public colleges and universities in the United States require formal evaluations of upper level administrators. Personnel actions seem to apply to everyone except for those highest in the ivory tower. This contradicts many a mission statement that tout social justice and equity as core values. In fact, to exempt upper-level administrators from public scrutiny is antithetical to the very mission of a public university 1 (Think of President Trump refusing to disclose his tax returns). Ultimately, the decision of (and procedures for) evaluating a university president should be guided by the mission of the individual institution—as operationally defined through a strategic plan.

While the missions vary across private and public institutions, there is universal commonality in the need for institutional health and wellness. Evaluating upper level administrators is an essential temperature checkpoint for higher education. Performance evaluations that are formal, systematic, and cyclical provide a much-needed 360-degree context for checking goal achievement. They also provide tangible evidence of an administrator’s effectiveness, and promote accountability for performance. In other words, both the university and the administrator benefit (albeit in different ways) by documenting the achievements and failures over a specified time period within a particular administrative role or office.

From my own work as a university senator I witnessed first hand the preeminent power of shared governance, especially in contributing to the success of top-level administrators. The effectiveness of a dean, provost, vice president, and/or president is to a great extent determined by the degree to which each of them involves the wider university community in their decision making—that is, the extent to which they embrace shared governance. The morale of stakeholders is inextricably connected to how they perceive their role in the decision making process. Therefore, the process of decision making can trump in importance the actual decision itself. The broader doctrine here is: how a top-level administrator functions is equally as important as what they actually accomplish. Evaluation should therefore address both the processes and products of performance.

Everyone has a stake in the leadership at the top levels of an academic institution. Therefore, formal evaluation of administrative performance is not (nor should it ever be construed as) an adversarial task. In those cases, I have observed that contention lies not with the idea of evaluation, but with conflicting definitions of what constitutes leadership. Some boards of trustees firmly believe the public institutional ship should be commandeered by a president-as-admiral. Others operate on a monarchal or even dictatorial structure, while their discourse is sprinkled with corporate ideology. Yet the public university in the United States must not obfuscate its obligation to democratic principles and practices. In other words, shared governance functions as a check and balance system for the inherently elitist and hierarchical structures of academic rank and tenure (of which I fully participate). Depending upon the structures of shared governance at your institution, it can be an executive committee of the university senate or one impaneled by the senate to oversee the task of evaluating a president, vice president, or dean.

Note that summative assessment is not the most compelling reason for evaluating upper-level university administrators. Rather, formative evaluation is what generates both ROI and also magnifies the talents and accomplishments of the administrator. Formative assessment is that which formulates leaders and distills important issues from those that are administrivial. The delicate dance between summative and formative evaluation should happen even before the administrator is hired, however. This means that stakeholders need to be heard at the starting line of hiring an upper-level administrator. Otherwise, future evaluation may resemble a power grab (the struggle for shared governance) and less about the administrator’s performance.

The summative and formative nature of administrator evaluations is further complicated by the issue of confidentiality. Making the summative aspects of the evaluation public provides incentive for stakeholder participation. It also conveys an institutional commitment to reflection, shared governance, and to a more limited extent—transparency. Formative evaluation might mean there are areas in need of improvement, with specific benchmarks and deadlines. The process bears little fruit if that sensitive information is conveyed publicly. Therefore, clear policies and procedures need to be established and followed to ensure fidelity of the evaluation process and the integrity of the outcomes.

Both the administrator and the governing bodies at an institution should also insist on an evaluation process that is both systematic and cyclical. This is to ensure momentum (change and improvement) beyond that which is momentous (accomplishment). Too long of an evaluation cycle and it skews summative (stagnant). Too short of a cycle stifles meaningful change catalyzed by formative evaluation. Clear timelines are essential.

In sum, an initial commitment to three basic tenets can prove a powerful launchpad for this process:

  • alignment of institutional mission with the evaluation process
  • inclusion of all stakeholders via shared governance
  • dedication to both formative and summative assessment

Post-pandemic higher education requires upper level university administrators (e.g., president, vice presidents, provosts, and even mid-level deans) to be agile leaders. The turnkey is consistent and formal evaluation. Whether you are the top-level administrator being evaluated, or you are participating in the process, this is slippery domain. Yet a firm commitment to the three basic principles above will do more than just keep the administrative ship afloat. It will enable you to navigate effective leadership in the tempestuous times ahead.

[1] Private universities are a different breed in this regard. And more have subscribed to a corporate model that isolates stakeholders from those who make decisions. While public institutions are not immune to this type of elitism, I express my gratitude for working at a public institution where faculty, professional staff, and students are vigorously fanning the embers of shared governance.

Further reading

American Association of University Professors (AAUP) (2006). Report on Faculty Evaluation of Administrators. Retrieved from https://www.aaup.org/report/faculty-evaluation-administrators

McKerrow, K. K., & Dennis, L. J. (1989). Evaluation of university presidents: Broadening the perspective. The Journal of Educational Thought, 23(1): 3-14.

Kramer, R. (2019, February 24). The art of executive feedback. Chronicle of Higher Education.

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